In Bethlehem recently, a 17-year-old boy named Johnny was walking across Manger Square at noon. An Orthodox Christian, he had just been at worship with his family in the Church of the Nativity, the oldest Christian church in the world. He was carrying his cousin's baby, trying to make the baby laugh.
Less than 100 feet from the Church, he was shot by an Israeli sniper from a hill nearly a mile away. Johnny gently lay the baby down on the stones of Manger Square and then fell over dead. He died, but not before making sure the the baby was safe. He left the child behind alive.
In Bethlehem it seems that some things never change. It's a turbulent place, a violent place, a dangerous place for anyone travelling. As it was for the magi two thousand years ago. The question this New Year is the same question they pursued on their journey: can anything new come about in Bethlehem?
In another recent Bethlehem incident, a little girl called Amal offered to carry a wedding gift from her uncle to their friends who lived a short walk away. With parcel in hand she headed towards her friends' home, but she was shocked to see a big Israeli army tank blocking the entrance. She stepped off the pavement and walked towards the tank intending to go round it and into the house.
To her horror, the tank gun swung around and pointed at her. She must have looked suspicious carrying her parcel. She stood in the middle of the road, terrified and frozen, a tiny figure in the shadow of the killing machine. Fortunately her friends' arrived in their car to rescue her. She was glad to see them, gave them the parcel and ran back home, shaken but safe.
I suggest that Amal and Johnny provide two modern-day versions of the story of the magi. Both of them travellers in Bethlehem seeking to share gifts of love, to worship God, to live faithful lives, despite the violence fostered by the leaders of the state to protect their interests, in the same old time-worn way. (For Herod, read Sharon. For Rome read Washington DC.)
In the old story there is hope. The child brings hope; hope that there are new ways for different peoples to live together. The adults who loved and protected the baby Jesus ensured there could be a better future ahead for those who stuck with him.
Desmond Tutu visited Israel-Palestine recently and said:
- "God is weeping over what He sees in the Middle East. God has no one except ourselves, absolutely no one. God is omnipotent, all-powerful, but also impotent. God does not dispatch lightening bolts to remove tyrants, as we might have hoped he would. God waits for you to act. You are his Partner. God is as weak as the weakest of his partners, or as strong as the morally strongest."
(Stories and Tutu quote extracted from various Sabeel newsletters)